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What is Involved in the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

By Melissa Barrett
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Wildlife trade involves the distribution of live animals or products made from live animals. Although most wildlife trade is legal, many countries have restrictions on the types of animals that may be traded. Often, the sale of endangered or threatened animals and the products made from these animals is strictly forbidden. Illegal wildlife trade happens when criminals ignore these laws, and it usually involves transactions on the black market.

One common product in the black market wildlife trade is bushmeat. In its purest form, the word "bushmeat" refers to any local animal hunted for food. In the context of illegal wildlife trade, the term "bushmeat trade" is often used to describe the illegal hunting and sale of endangered animals for food.

In some parts of the world, some endangered animals, mainly primates, are considered delicacies. Poachers primarily target gorillas and chimpanzees for illegal bushmeat. This poaching has resulted in a drastic decline in the number of primates in the wild. In 2000, illegal hunting was listed as a direct cause of the possible extinction of the Miss Waldron's Red Colobus monkey.

Poachers also hunt and trap live animals for illegal trade. Primates, exotic birds and wild cats are all animals that are at risk because of illegal wildlife trade. Exotic birds, in particular yellow-naped Amazon parrots and scarlet macaws, are highly sought for use as pets.

Large cats such as tigers and cheetahs, and primates such as chimpanzees and orangutans, are in high demand for display in private zoos and use in animal entertainment acts. There are legitimate ways of obtaining these animals, but the process generally is lengthy and expensive. As a result, black market trading of these endangered animals has become a lucrative source of income to hunters who choose to engage in illegal wildlife trade.

Many traditional remedies also contain ingredients from endangered animals. Bile from the gall bladder of the Asiatic black bear, rhinoceros horns and almost all parts of the tiger are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The sale of medicines containing these endangered animals is frequently prohibited by local and regional governments.

Luxury goods represent a significant portion of illegal wildlife trade. Ivory from the trunk of African and Asian elephants is used in decorative carvings and jewelry that frequently find their way to the black market. Belts and shoes made from crocodile skin remain popular, even though many crocodile species are now listed as threatened or endangered. Bracelets and hair accessories made from the shell of the endangered hawksbill turtle are also common items in illegal trading.

Penalties for illegal wildlife trading vary from country to country but are often quite stiff. Fines in excess of $100,000 US Dollars and prison terms of 20 or more years have been reported. Illegal traders who operate internationally are often subject to prosecution in more than one country.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Apr 01, 2014

@clintflint - Well, often they are poor as well. It's the people who buy the animals that are really at fault. If not for them, there would be no trade and if they are rich enough to afford the animal there's really no reason for them to have it. It's pure greed.

By clintflint — On Mar 31, 2014

@Ana1234 - That's one reason why education is so important. Although in places where there is extreme poverty, I'm not sure how much it would help, as people aren't exactly going to care if they are selling an endangered animal if they feel their own children are endangered by starvation.

I feel much less anger towards people like that, than towards the fools who smuggle animals illegally over borders in order to sell them as exotic pets. Not only do they make the animals suffer and hurt wild populations, they also often kill the animals they are trying to transport.

Not to mention that they could easily move parasites and diseases from place to place without intending to. They really are some of the lowest of the low.

By Ana1234 — On Mar 30, 2014

It was really shocking the first time I stumbled on a market overseas where they sold illegal animal products. I found a man who was hawking a leopard skin and I was absolutely horrified. I don't even think he knew it was illegal. He couldn't understand why I was so upset.

There were all kinds of different products, from skulls and dried feet for charms, to full carcasses of predators that people could pose with for photos. It really saddened me, because I honestly don't think most of them were even aware of why it was so wrong. To them, it was no different from slaughtering cattle for meat.

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